‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ wrestles with keeping the (Jewish) faith when bad things happen to good people

Rabbi Michael (Diane Di Bernardo) and Joey Brant (Peter Palmisano) prepare for Joey’s upcoming adult Bar Mitzvah in ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy.’

By Shelley A. Sackett

Right out of the gate, playwright Mark Leiren-Young challenges his audience to leave their assumptions in the (virtual) lobby. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy,’ his prize-winning 90-minute two-hander, opens as a young woman wearing jogging gear, baseball cap and rock-blasting ear buds pauses by a bench, then continues on the wooded trail, straight up the front steps of a stately mid-20th century synagogue.

Inside the rabbi’s office, a 60ish man, dressed in full rabbinic regalia —  gray suit, tallis (prayer shawl), kippah and tefilln (phylacteries) — pulls a book from the book shelf. He sits at his desk, poring over it somberly, as a woman’s nasal voice bleats over a tinny loudspeaker, “Rabbi. You’ve got a visitor.”

The jogger enters and freezes. “Excuse me?” she says with ambiguous inflection. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m waiting for someone,” the man replies. In the first of many twists meant to keep us untethered, it turns out the woman is Rabbi Michael Levitz-Sharon (Diane Di Bernardo) and the man, a prosperous divorce attorney, is Joey Brant (Peter Palmisano).

Joey has a mission; he begs her to prepare him for a traditional Bar Mitzvah. He is desperate to carry on this family practice before his grandson, Ben, celebrates his own Bar Mitzvah the following week in the same synagogue, but “no one can know.” Rabbi Michael objects, complaining only a magician could pull off such a feat, but when Joey deploys his talent for persuasion, she reluctantly agrees to take him on as a student.

These opening scenes lay the groundwork for this thinly-plotted, character-driven play, and establish Leiren-Young as a gifted craftsman. The dialogue is witty, smart and fast, full of one-liners and prickly punch lines delivered by two talented actors. Although Joey and Rabbi Michael initially seem poles apart, the more they talk, the more their chemistry grows. They riff off each other. Both make their livings through words, and they delight in the gamesmanship of debate. They are skilled active listeners and articulate, honest responders. They share a sense of humor which has helped each navigate life’s hardships and disappointments. And they both wear their hearts — and their pain — on their sleeves.

Yet, on other levels, the two couldn’t be more different. Joey is impatient, pushy and demanding, a man who knows what he wants and is used to getting it. He abandoned Judaism 52 years ago and hasn’t  been in a synagogue since.

Rabbi Michael, on the other hand, is a third-generation rabbi who entered the “family business” because she wanted to help people. She is in love with the sense of home she gets every time she enters any synagogue, anyplace in the world. Her faith is her bedrock;  her community, her lifeline.

As the play evolves, the tenor of their conversation deepens and Leiren-Young lets his characters ask the question the audience has been pining to have answered. “Why are you here?” Rabbi Michael finally asks. Joey replies, “I want to believe in God,” but admits he has trouble when he sees “stuff like this,” referring to Rachel, the 11-year-old terminal cancer victim he saw at services the previous Saturday. “She’s my daughter,” Rabbi Michael (whose name, ironically, means “beloved of God) answers, and with that, ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ shifts gears as the two join forces in their quest to make sense of Judaism in the light of unspeakable tragedies.

The pitch of their conversations deepens in intellectual, spiritual and emotional tone as their relationship morphs from teacher/student to trusting friends. The rabbi shepherds Joey on his journey of Jewish rediscovery despite her breaking heart, putting on a “good face” for her congregation and supporting her daughter’s desire is to be called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah before she dies. She candidly admits that Rachel’s imminent passing and the marital separation it caused has stressed her faith to the breaking point. Whether it will survive her death is anyone’s guess.

Joey, too, lets down his guard and reveals the real reason he never had a Bar Mitzvah. For him, a Bar Mitzvah doesn’t represent a coming-of-age rite; it is a coming-back-to-faith turning point.

Joey and Rabbi Michael’s meaty discussions about the Bible as metaphor, miracles, forgiveness, tragedies, and what it means to “feel” Jewish are certainly heady and thought provoking. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ is, after all, a Jewish play with a universal story about keeping faith when bad things happen to good people.

But at the end of the day, these scholarly concepts alone can’t save them. Rather, it is their personal connection as caring friends that helps them build a bridge over the rough waters of their doubts, and their shared faith in the power of community that might just carry them across.

‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ — Written by Mark Leiren-Young; Directed by Saul Elkin; Produced by David Bunis; Managing Director- Jordana Halpern; Stage Manager- Keelin Higgins; Set Design by David Dwyer; Costume Design by Ann Emo; Sound Design by Nicholas Quin. Presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ is available for digital download from November 5-25. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit jccns.org/event/bar-mitzvah-boy/

‘Manifest Destiny’s Child’ or True Confessions of a Regretful 2016 Jill Stein Supporter

Dennis Trainor Jr in “Manifest Destiny’s Child

by Shelley A. Sackett

‘Manifest Destiny’s Child’ is a dramatization of Dennis Trainor, Jr.’s true story about his personal involvement in all things social justice, from protesting at Standing Rock and Occupy Wall Street to his hosting and writing the nationally syndicated news and politics show Acronym TV to, ultimately, becoming Communications Director of Dr. Jill Stein’s ill-fated third party run for President in 2016.

Created as a memoir at Boston’s creative writing space, Grub Street, Trainor decided to morph the piece into a one-man show. While he and director Jeff Wise wisely interspliced actual footage from the protests and Stein’s campaigns, that footage spotlights Trainor, either as participant or interviewer. Coupled with the remainder of the 63-minutes that focuses on Trainor as a talking head either in emotive full face  or — annoyingly — in static profile, that’s a LOT of on-screen Trainor, his Robert Downey, Jr./Matthew Perry appeal  notwithstanding.

Dennis Trainor Jr arrested in the Hart Senate Office Building during the Occupy Wall Street movement, October 2011. Image: Screenshot/ Manifest Destiny’s Child / AcronymTV.org

It’s hard to get a handle on Trainor’s point at first. We are introduced to his comfortable, well-appointed bourgeois lifestyle (love the art work!), his mid-life professional crisis and his inviolable weekly date nights with his wife. We also glimpse his rage and disappointment at “Trumplandia” and receive a history lesson on “Manifest Destiny,” the widely held 19th century American imperialist belief that American expansion throughout the continent was both justifiable and inevitable.

“How did we get into this Trump mess?” Trainor bemoans. “Inequality and poverty are not an accident. They are human made.”

Finally, some 20 minutes in, Trainor throws us a contextual lifeline. It is 2015 and, seemingly out of the blue, Dr. Jill Stein asks him to be her Communications Director for her presidential campaign. Trainor, flattered and relieved to have something meaningful to do with his life, accepts her offer. Nine months later, he quit but not before amassing a trove of frustrations and disappointments that he can’t wait to share.

The show sometimes feels like a TED talk, and perhaps that’s a venue Trainor should explore, since those parts of the piece feel most authentic and are most engaging. He holds forth on the history of third parties in American politics and the narrow but important victories they won, such as the end of slavery by the then third-party Republican party and women’s right to vote by the Woman Suffrage Party.

Yet, through the whining and misgivings, one can’t help wondering: Why did he work for Stein if he knew she would never be president? Why did she run if not to win?

Trainor’s point (and it is an excellent one) is that Stein should have set her sights on getting the Green New Deal passed rather than securing the presidency, which was completely beyond her grasp. However, she stubbornly stayed in the fray, eventually (in Trainor’s tortured mind) drawing enough votes away from Clinton to result in Trump’s victory. And he was her willing accomplice.

Although he quit Stein’s campaign after nine months, he returned a year later as an independent contractor handling her media (or “sales,” as he aptly puts it). Trainor feels residual existential guilt over his part in her toxic and unproductive run, and this is where the show changes tenor from memoir to chest-beating therapy, which is too bad.

Turns out, however, Trainor and Stein had more in common than not: they share an almost masochistic compulsion to make arguments and fight battles they are certain to lose. “Throwing sand at tsunamis,” he names it.

The piece does end on an upbeat note, heralding  revolutionary struggles that can actually be won, like Occupy Wall Street and Standing Rock. Still, it’s hard not to worry about Trainor personally. If the 2016 election threw him into a tailspin of depressing hours spent on Facebook, Twitter and list making, how must he be coping with that scenario redux and COVID?

‘Manifest Destiny’s Child’ — Written and performed by Dennis Trainor, Jr.; Directed by Jeff Wise and Dennis Trainor; Presented by Acronym TV. 

Manifest Destiny’s Child will stream on-demand October 24st — November 8th, 2020 here: https://acronymtv.org/mdc

Gloucester Stage Company Serves Up Full-Bodied Blues in ‘Paradise Blue’

by Shelley A. Sackett

There’s a raw poetic cadence to the dazzling dialogue of playwright Dominique Morisseau’s final play in her trilogy set in different decades in Detroit. It’s 1949, and the downtown Blackbottom entertainment district is home to many black-owned jazz clubs, including the Paradise Club. Director Jackie Davis sets the tone immediately. Against an opening montage of black and white period photos and a pained, bone-melting trumpet solo,  we hear a single gunshot. This film noir trope is a perfect entrance into ‘Paradise Blue’ and an introduction to the complicated passions that drive its five characters.

Although a structurally imperfect play, Morisseau has served up a piece of theatrical pie rich in language, character development and emotional impact. Despite the virtual production (done zoom-like with seated actors who address the camera full on), the superb cast delivers the caliber of performances that suck the audience right in, dissolving the cyber barrier.  Davis uses a stage direction reader (Aimee Hamrick) to keep the production moving. Hamrick’s “just the facts-ma’am” efficient and unobtrusive narration adds another layer of Sam Spade noir. Once again, Gloucester Stage Company has gifted its theater-hunger fans with a satisfying and innovative armchair experience.

All the action takes place in the Paradise Club, a jazz and drinks joint that both exalts and entombs Blue (Ricardo Engermann), its owner, bandleader and tortured trumpeter. Although lean and small boned, Blue casts a long shadow and his moodiness hangs like an ominous dark cloud over his head. His club is staffed by his affable and hardworking girlfriend-cook-housekeeper Pumpkin (played with confidence and self-effacement by Meagan Dilworth) and his bandmates, piano man Cornelius (Cliff Odle) and drummer P-Sam (Omar Robinson). The topic at hand is how to keep the music going in the absence of the group’s bassist, whom Blue fired after getting into a row with him.

To make ends meet, Blue decides to advertise a room for rent. When the sultry, sexy Silver (Ramona-Lisa Alexander) shows up to answer the ad wearing a red hat and carrying a wad of cash, a loaded pistol and a steamy look that could liquefy lacquer, the play’s pulse quickens. Although Alexander is seated throughout the reading, her voice and gestures spellbind the audience with their overwhelming sensuality and physicality. She is unmistakably a woman used to using her charisma and beauty to charm men into doing what she wants them to do. In Alexander’s exceptional hands, she is indeed a black widow, drawing us into her web every time she looks our way.

Although the 2hour24 minute production gets off to a slow and stilted start, once Silver shows up, there’s an uptick that is sustained until the end. This play is not plot driven; rather it is a snapshot glimpse through the keyhole of five multi-dimensional lives in Black Detroit in 1949. Morisseau’s gifted dialogue lets her characters’ layered stories slowly unfold through their rich and intimate conversations and confrontations with each other. It’s a treat to be a fly on these walls.

Pumpkin, the literal heart of the play and its moral compass, is sensitive and caring. She even carries a book of poetry which she is intent on memorizing just because of its beauty. Despite Blue’s depression and habit of manhandling her, Pumpkin only sees the goodness in him. “A woman’s job is to ease a man’s troubles. This man has a gift. Makes me feel like somebody just to be close to it,” she tells Silver.

Silver couldn’t be a starker contrast. She is aggressive, suspicious and competitive. She is also heartbreakingly sensitive, seeing demons everywhere, from the white world in which a Black man struggles to exist to her own barren womb. “I’m cursed. What’s a woman if she ain’t bearing fruit?” she confides to the sympathetic, compassionate Cornelius (whom she takes as her lover).

Although the three males are less clearly delineated, their portrayers do a splendid job of bringing them to life. Engermann plays Blue with a Denzel Washington fluid and easy delivery, his voice like caramel with a dusting of sandpaper. His and Alexander’s (Silver) phrasings, cadences and pauses are breathtakingly spot on. Odle as Corn is accessible and gentle, a wise and wizened elder statesman. Robinson does the best he can with the thinly drawn P-Sam.

While Morisseau excels at teasing out the nuances of personal relationships, her structural shortcomings in three important areas diminish her audience’s ability to appreciate her artistic intent: (1) Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo’s platform promoting urban gentrification and the buying of black businesses to cure “urban/black blight” is essential background information only obliquely referenced; (2) as the play’s principal character, Blue is underdeveloped; we need more of his backstory told by- not about- him, and (3) the ending feels out of step, strained and jarring.

Notwithstanding, ‘Paradise Blue’ is well worth the stamina required to watch and highly recommended for its superb acting, fabulous soundtrack and inspired production. Once again, Kudos to Gloucester Stage Company for raising the virtual bar yet again.

‘Paradise Blue’ — Written by Dominique Morisseau; Directed by Jackie Davis; Produced by Gloucester Stage Company at Oneline/Virtual Space, as part of its 2020 Never Dark Series. Streaming online October 1-4 at https://gloucesterstage.com/battle-not-begun/

The 1938 Munich Agreement Is Unmasked in Gloucester Stage Company’s Inventive ‘The Battle Not Begun’

by Shelley A. Sackett

Those of us who eschew the national news in favor of mental equilibrium and spiritual health should be forewarned: it is nearly impossible to watch this historically grounded play and not draw some scary parallels to global current events. The points between 1938 and 2020 beg to be connected.

That said, ‘The Battle Not Begun,’ written by playwright and NPR news analyst Jack Beatty, is as artistically absorbing as it is factually repellant. Under Myriam Cyr’s tight editing and sharp-eyed direction, the audience becomes a fly on the wall at the fateful meeting between Adolph Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that gave Hitler a green light to launch what became World War II.

A little historical background may be helpful. (I offer this lengthy intro because, as one whose knowledge of WWII is admittedly gauzy, I wish I had this primer before sitting down to watch the play.)

After the First World War ended in 1918, the map of Europe was redrawn and several new countries were formed, including Czechoslovakia. As a result, three million Germans found themselves living under Czech rule in the Sudetenland. In 1938, when Hitler came to power, he vowed to reunite Germans into one nation, starting with the cessation to Germany of the “Sudeten German territory.”

Incited by Hitler’s rhetoric, Sudeten Germans rioted and deliberately provoked violence by the Czech police. Hitler falsely claimed that the police killed 300 Germans during these protests.  With this weaponized “fake news” as justification, Hitler immediately placed German troops along the Czech border and announced his intention to annex it. Chamberlain flew to Hitler’s private mountaintop retreat to try to forge an agreement to bring “peace for our time” and avoid further Nazi aggression. (This meeting is the setting for ‘The Battle Not Begun.’)

Instead, Chamberlain caved to Hitler’s every demand about the Sudetenland in the naïve belief that, in exchange, Hitler would honor his end of the bargain and not seek additional territory in Europe. Hitler lied, astutely outplaying Chamberlain. Chamberlain loudly touted the pact as a personal triumph and Britain’s legacy for peace by negotiation. History has since dubbed the Munich Agreement shorthand for “a failed act of appeasement” and a symbol for the futility of placating expansionist totalitarian states.

An inventive film/theater/re-enactment hybrid, ‘The Battle Not Begun’ sets its period mood from the outset. TV/movie-like credits roll over a 1938 tinted photo, slowly panned in a Ken Burns-esque manner. Adolf Hitler (played with technicolor panache by the  supremely talented Ken Bolden) appears full frame in all his stereotypic glory. He paces, prances, preens and snarls, almost simultaneously. This is not someone who plays hide the ball. As Chamberlain waits offstage, he wastes no time telling the audience exactly what he thinks of this “Calvin Coolidge less the exuberance” who is all “grey competence.”

Enter Chamberlain (Malcolm Ingram, who maintains an implacably stiff upper lip and air of entitled aristocracy throughout the performance), as if on cue. He is as polite, deferential and serious as Hitler is insulting and crass. The worst that can be said of Chamberlain’s behavior is that he is a snob and a stick-in-the-mud.

For the rest of the 97-minute production, we have a ring-side seat as these two slug out a resolution to the situation in Czechoslovakia. Along the way, we learn much about these men and what makes each tick. Chamberlain, the white glove diplomat who grew up with a platinum spoon in his mouth, is dispassionate and clinical. He never had actual boots on any war-torn ground, and, while he is no humanist (he disdains the Czechs-and Slavs in general- as much as Hitler does), he is also no savage. He is petty and obsessed with his public image and avenging the humiliation he suffered at the hands of Prime Minister Lloyd George. But he also believes in the sanctity of human life. “When lives are at stake, every chance of peace must be explored,” he implores. “War is a nightmare.”

Hitler, on the other hand, grew up friendless, homeless and impoverished in Vienna. He found peace, meaning and acceptance as a soldier during WWI.  “War is not a nightmare to me. It is life unmasked,” he explains. “War is the great equalizer of class. All are equal in the trenches.” Avenging Germany’s defeat has been his life’s sole mission since 1918.

By the play’s end, we sense that anything negotiated by these two men is doomed to failure; they are simply too different, unable to speak the same language or play by the same rules. No matter what they draft and sign, it cannot be binding because it cannot be translated.

“I became me in war. You became you in a peace that ground every German face to the ground,” Hitler says, as if providing a proof text.

‘The Battle Not Begun-Munich 1938:The Brink of War’ – Written by Jack Beatty; Directed by Miriam Myriam Cyr; Produced by Gloucester Stage Company at Oneline/Virtual Space in collaboration with Punctuate4, an all-female led production company based on the North Shore, as part of its 2020 Never Dark Series. Streaming online September 3-6 at https://gloucesterstage.com/battle-not-begun/

Arlekin Players Theater’s ‘State vs. Natasha Banina’ Turns Virtual Theatre on Its Head in a Groundbreaking Production

 

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Darya Denisova as Natasha in ‘State vs. Natasha Banina.’

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

If there are silver linings to the COVID-19 pandemic (and I firmly believe there are many), the robust and varied ways in which live theatre has adapted itself to the digital Zoom era ranks at the top of the list. Some have opted to create a virtual replica of the silent, passive invisible spectator model, maintaining a masked cyber wall between actor and audience, with mixed and inconsistent success.

 

Not so Arlekin Players Theater’s production of ‘State vs. Natasha Banina.’ Under Igor Golyak’s ground-breaking direction, his “live theater and experiment” audience is far from detached and anonymous. Digging deep into his interactive theatrical bag of tricks, Golyak uses graphics, animation and live viewer participation to erase the glass barrier between observed and observer and create a unique film/theater hybrid. The result is one thrilling corona coaster ride.

 

The 55-minute live production centers on the fate of Natasha Banina (brilliantly played by the 2020 Elliot Norton Award-winner for Outstanding Actress, Darya Denisova), a Russian 16-year-old incarcerated as she awaits trial for manslaughter in a crime of passion. During pre-show remarks, a masked Golyak addresses the spectators with the words, “Welcome to our virtual courtroom.”

 

The audience/participants (which last Sunday numbered close to 100) are members of the Zoom jury, Golyak says. We are encouraged to introduce ourselves in a pre-show chat room and take an interactive on-line poll to determine our eligibility to serve. The camera remains 2-way throughout the performance, with Natasha periodically addressing the “jurors” by name. The effect is electrifying.

 

We then enter Natasha’s cell, where we remain with her for the rest of the piece as she takes the virtual stand and testifies on her own behalf. She slowly unfolds her story, peeling back the layers of an onion that brings predictable tears to the eye. Raised in a small-town orphanage by abusive and hard-hearted “caregivers”, she describes a childhood laced with pain, populated by girls who bully each other and a mother who refers to her as “my abortion.” Unflappable, Natasha nonetheless remains optimistic. She has hope for a different future. She has faith in an imaginary pipedream. “Natasha, what is your dream?” she repeatedly asks herself, with increasing desperation and animalistic passion.

 

Her life went bad, she confides, when a journalist came to the orphanage and, in the course of his research, took a personal interest in her inhumane conditions. He asked her a question no one had ever asked: “What’s your dream, Natasha?”

 

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Natasha misinterprets this single moment of kindness (“It is the first time someone has been horrified for my life,” she says with puppy dog exuberance). She overreacts, and in her delusional and desperate infatuation, imagines him as her knight in shining armor who will marry her and lead her into a fairytale land of forever after. (Under animator Anton Iakhontov’s inspired genius, the knight is replaced by an astronaut who literally leads Natasha to another world amid cartoon hearts and clouds).

 

As the lines between inside and outside the stark white cell become blurred for the audience, so does Natasha’s grip on reality as she tells us what came next. She paces around the confined space, grinning all the time with a Cheshire cat grin that alternates among bestial, alluring, menacing and achingly vulnerable. Running black eye makeup and a half- blackened tooth amplify the effect.

 

Trapped by her fantasies, Natasha continues her self-defense. When she spies her imaginary lover with another woman, she becomes unhinged, encouraging her posse to savagely beat her as revenge. The woman remains hospitalized in a coma and for that act, Natasha faces trial.

 

And we, the Zoom jury, are to decide her fate.

 

Natasha takes it to an even more personal level as she addresses audience members by name and pleads with them to see her side of the story. “It’s just a dream I had,” she confesses. And with that, an interactive poll appears on the screen and we are asked to vote: guilty or not guilty?

 

Within seconds, the verdict appears. Last Sunday, Natasha was found guilty. Other nights, she has had more luck.

 

Denisova’s performance cannot be praised enough. Although she is alone throughout the entire performance, the audience is left wanting more, no small or standard feat. Her physicality is riveting: she prowls, growls, purrs and eventually claws her way into our hearts. Her jagged smile and trapped, beseeching eyes make us want to hug her and tame her, not necessarily in that order.

 

As engaging as the play was, the almost as long Emerson-facilitated talk-back was equally absorbing, as Golyak and Denisova fielded questions and took us on a tour of the apartment where the performance was filmed. The audience/jury participation in the live chat was rich with insight and nuance as the discussion veered to questions of morality, insanity defense, human pain and suffering, and judgment.

 

“The virtual medium is just another space where theater takes place and where audiences can share experiences,” Golyak explained. “Theater is one of those art forms that can be represented in many different environments.”

 

‘State vs Natasha’ has just started its global virtual tour. For more information, go to www.arlekinplayers.com.

‘State vs. Natasha Banina’ Directed by Igor Golyak, based on Yaroslava Pulinovich’s ‘Natasha’s Dream;’ Performed by Darya Denisova; Translated by John Freedman; Animation by Anton Iakhontov; Video by Igor Golyak; Music composed by Vadim Khrapatchev. Produced by Arlekin Players Theater in partnership with ArtsEmerson and the Cherry Orchard Festival. For upcoming performances, visit arlekinplayers.com/state-vs-natasha-banina-online-interactive-live-performance-2/

 

 

 

Living Out Loud: Gloucester Stage Unmasks Isabella Stewart Gardner in a Tour-de-Force Production

Isabella

by Shelley A. Sackett

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s legacy is synonymous with that of her namesake museum, Fenway Court. Part arboretum, part concert hall, and part cultural repository, the building houses the eccentric millionaires’ collection of art, sculpture, tapestries and more in a gilded Italian confection that reflects its creator’s love affair with the Italian Renaissance.

 

Just as a visit to the museum titillates and seduces the visitor with romantic corridors and hidden treasures, so does Leigh Strimbeck’s spectacular performance as the spirited and indomitable Mrs. Gardner lead us down a magical path that unveils this complex firecracker of a Bostonian Brahmin’s wife. For just under an hour, Strimbeck (who wrote the one-woman script) is Isabella Stewart Gardner and we are her confidantes as she tells the story of her life from a 20-year-old newlywed in 1860’s Boston to the widowed hostess at the opening of her beloved museum in 1903.

 

What a story it is and was a terrific storyteller to boot!

 

Strimbeck is on camera in this “Theatre on Film” production during the entire 56 minutes, and  neither the camera nor the audience can get enough of her. By the end of the monologue, we feel like we’ve barely scratched beneath the surface of this enigmatic powerhouse.

 

As instructive as it is entertaining, ‘‘The Queen of Fenway Court: Isabella Stewart Gardner’’ introduces Isabella as she struggles with her life as an ebullient, headstrong and feisty young wife stuck in uptight, staid class-obsessed Boston. She quickly abandons any thought of reining in her temperament to “blend in,” and soon she is the belle of the ball and talk of the town- not all of it flattering.

 

To the woman bragging about her ancestors being among the first to arrive in Boston, Isabella cracks, “Yes. They were much less careful about immigration in those days.” She takes a lion on a walk on a dare and attends dances alone while her equally independent and modern husband Jack (a monied Peabody by birth, a banker by trade) takes refuge in his club. “I obey the rules when they suit me,” she dead pans, her playful eyes dancing roguishly.

 

Her life takes a U-turn with the birth and death at age 2 of her only child, a son. “My heart sweated,” she says. “Where is God in all of this?” When she suffers a miscarriage and subsequent hysterectomy, her husband whisks her off to Europe and Egypt to recover, planting the seed of the second great romance that will dominate her life: a love for travel. “Travel is the way out and the way back,” she says.

 

She returns to Italy with a companion (she has many, mostly male and all allegedly platonic) and finds both her true passion and her voice in sensational Venice, the antidote to functional and stoic Boston with its 50 gloomy shades of wintry gray. When she answers the “call to the hunt” and purchases her first painting, Titian’s “The Rape of Europa,” (which she hopes is “enough to turn any Puritan to a Bacchante”), she discovers her true calling: to collect art for art’s sake. Eyes ablaze, she triumphantly crows after bagging the prized Titian at her first auction, “I vow to live out loud.”

 

When she returns to Boston, her goals are straightforward: to bring the visual feast of Italy to Boston while, whenever possible, scandalizing its uptight Victorian inhabitants. She and her beloved Jack will build a palazzo to house her carefully curated collection. When he dies midway through the project, however, she decides to live there alone and  builds her cozy fourth-floor apartment.

 

Full-bodied and clad in the black velvet dress and ruby necklace made famous in John Singer Sargent’s portrait, Strimbeck channels Isabella and all her inconsistencies, quirkiness and charm. She wears both halo and crown and, in the blink of an eye, shifts from steely and unwavering to coquettish and fun-loving and back again to shrewd and fearless. Her voice is nuanced, the pacing interesting and intimate. All this makes for great storytelling and enchanting theater.

 

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s art and her museum are her last dance and her last love. Above the entrance is the motto, “C’est mon Plaisir.” (this is my delight). After spending an hour getting to know and understand Isabella/Strimbeck, revisiting this literal palace in the hopefully not too distant future will also be nos plaisirs. Merci, Isabella.

 

‘The Queen of Fenway Court: Isabella Stewart Gardner’ – Written and Performed by Leigh Strimbeck; Directed by Joshua Briggs; Original Music by Jan Jurchak. Produced by Gloucester Stage Company at Oneline/Virtual Space as part of its 2020 Never Dark Series. Streaming online August 6-9.For tickets and information, go to: gloucesterstage.com.

 

Child Is Father to Man in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Children.”

 

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DRINK PARSNIP WINE. Karen MacDonald, Tyrees Allen and Paula Plum in SpeakEasy Stage’s production. All photos by Maggie Hall Photography.

By Shelley A. Sackett

Playwright Lucy Kirkwood had wanted to write about climate change for quite a while when the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan provided the impetus and inspiration. With “The Children,” a must-see production enjoying its Boston premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company through March 28, she has succeeded in crafting a thoughtful and provocative three-character play that manages to raise profound existential and moral questions while slowing peeling back the layers of this three-some’s long and complicated history.

It is also one heck of a riveting eco-thriller/emotional detective story brilliantly acted by the inimitable stage luminaries Tyrees Allen, Karen MacDonald and Paula Plum.

 

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The lights first come up almost mid-sentence on a rustic kitchen where Rose (MacDonald) stands, trying to staunch the flow of blood as it gushes from her nose and stains her shirt. Hazel (Plum) enters with a towel, trying to assist, but Rose waves her away. Rose asks after Hazel’s children. Hazel casually mentions she thought Rose was dead. Their banter is informal and the tone almost familial, but it is clear from the get-go that theirs is a tricky relationship and that there is something uneasy and troubling in this cottage.

As the story unfolds, we learn that Hazel and her husband, Robin (Allen), both retired, have taken refuge in their country cottage because their pastoral English seaside community has been devasted by a nuclear power plant disaster caused by an earthquake and tsunami. Their farm/home now lies in the toxic exclusion zone. All now in their 60s, the three met as 20-something physicists and engineers when they worked together building the power plant that just melted down.

 

Rose clothes her unannounced arrival—Hazel hasn’t seen her in 38 years—as concern about the disaster and how it has affected Hazel and Robin. But all is not what meets the eye and it soon becomes clear that the three share a complicated entanglement and that Rose’s visit is neither spontaneous nor agenda-less. Yet the question remains: Why is she there?

 

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Kirkwood masterfully delineates her characters, revealing their personality infrastructures slowly, deliberately and subtly. Hazel and Robin raised four children and Hazel, even in her new post-apocalyptic existence where the air is radioactive and electricity is rationed, maintains her rigid domestic and yoga regimens. She is dogmatic in her belief that one must adapt to survive. “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live,” she practically spits at Rose. She is determined to live to a ripe od age and to die on her own terms. She is beholden to none; she has paid her dues.

Rose, on the other hand, never married, spent time in America and has been prescribed birth control pills to extinguish her fomenting libido. As it turns out, that treatment has been only minimally effective, as the smoldering embers of an old triangle soon reveal. She is the wild child yin to Hazel’s buttoned-up yang, mischievously clogging Hazel’s toilet by deliberately doing a “number two” after being asked not to and defiantly smoking cigarette after cigarette.

Robin is the fulcrum between the two, the double-dipper who ended up with Hazel but who still ignites in Rose’s proximity. He copes with his new reality by continuing to farm and care for his cows despite the risk posed by prolonged exposure to radiation. He seems rudderless and passive, going with the flow (including marrying Hazel when she became pregnant despite his arguable preference for Rose), creating no wake.

Over an hour into the 100-minute intermission-less show, Rose’s purpose is revealed: she has come to recruit Hazel and Robin to clean up the radioactive mess their shortsighted and negligent engineering knowingly created. “We built it. We’re responsible. I feel the need to clean it up,” she admonishes. Furthermore, she believes it is their duty to trade places (and, by implication, deaths) with the 20-somethings assigned the task of scrubbing away the radioactive debris. “It’s our duty to a child to die at some point,” the childless Rose chides. “I’ll know when I’ve had enough,” Rose yells back, later admitting, “I don’t know how to want less.”

No spoilers here about Robin and Hazel’s choices, but Kirkwood asks some deep and soul-searching questions. If we know the facts about climate change, why are we failing so catastrophically to change our behavior? Is it enough to stop contributing to the damage or is there a duty to fix what we created and are leaving the next generation? And who are the real children referred to in the title: those who are the actual children, powerless victims inheriting a flawed world or their parents, who act like children with their selfish irresponsibility and assumptive impunity?

“The Children”. By Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Bryn Boice. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 537 Tremont Street, Boston through March 28.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speakeasy Stage’s ‘Pass Over’ Packs a Timely Wallop

“Mister (Lewis D. Wheeler), Moses (Kadahj Bennett), and Kitch (Hubens “Bobby” Cius) in Speakeasy Stage’s ‘Pass Over’ – Photos by Nile Scott Studios

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

Even before ‘Pass Over’ begins, as theatergoers blithely check emails and jockey for their seats, the actors make clear theirs is a production that will claim one’s full attention and engagement. Two young scruffy black men, dressed in hoodies, oversized footwear and hats, prowl around the sparse stage, demanding eye contact and flirting with the women in the front row. By the time the house lights go down and the stage lights go up, these two have established an uneasy arms-length rapport with the audience.

Moses (Kadahj Bennett) and Kitch (Hubens “Bobby” Cius) hang out on their street corner under the watchful eye of a lone street light, to which they seem to be tethered by an invisible leash. They pass their unemployed time talking about their hopes and dreams, waiting for a sign that their life is about to start in earnest. They count off the names of those unarmed friends and family members killed by the police – “Po-pos”- while playing a game called “Promised Land Top Ten.” They take turns naming the ten things they would like to see when they “pass over” to paradise – ranging from clean socks to a brother back from the dead – but the undercurrent of anxiety and foreboding darkens the spirit of their light-hearted banter. The threat of violence from the police looms darkly beyond the four corners of their tight quarters and it takes all their energy to keep panic at bay. Lighting bursts and menacing sound eruptions add to the unease.

 

 

Playwright Antoinette Nwandu has fashioned her blistering, complex and ambitious 2019 Lortel Award winner for Outstanding Play as a sweeping landscape to address systemic racism, police brutality, gun violence, slavery and the Exodus story of freedom from oppression. She uses Samuel Beckett’s absurdist canon, “Waiting for Godot,” as a stylistic framework and while familiarity with that play is not required, it doesn’t hurt.

Yet, Nwandu imbues Moses and Kitch with such humanity and personality that they are hardly absurdist symbols, but rather fully fleshed out individuals whose plights are heartbreaking. Both Bennett and Cius  give award-worthy performances that paint an intimate camaraderie through dance, verbal games and elaborate bumps. Bennett’s Moses is a pillar of discipline, strength and optimism. He is resolved to escape this dead end. “You’re going to live up to your true potential. I’m going to lead you,” he tells Kitch. Cius plays Kitch as Moses’s sweet puppy-dog younger brother, full of frenetic, unfocused energy and blinding desire to please.

The play’s two white characters are “Mister,” a wolf-like dandy off to visit his grandmother with a picnic basket, and a racist, sadistic thug of a police officer. Lewis D. Wheeler plays both with a razor sharp but impersonal crispness that is both intimidating and merciless. Both are cartoonish, flat and soulless, especially compared to Moses and Kitch.

 

 

Much has been written about the play’s use of the “n-word” and the opinions are as numerous as the critics who pen them. When Moses and Kitch use it, the term is one of endearment, companionship and solidarity. When uttered by Mister or the policeman, the term drips with venom and malevolence. What is not ambiguous is whether Nwandu intends her  generous use of the word to indicate a green light for its acceptance in contemporary speech. “Aside from the actors saying the lines of dialogue while in character, this play is in no way, shape, or form an invitation for anyone to use the n-word,” she notes in the script.

“Pass Over” is an important work by a playwright with a strong, smart, original voice, performed by an all-star cast. Anyone who values serious thought-provoking theater should not miss this  stellar production. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/

‘Pass Over’ – Written by Antoinette Nwandu; Directed by Monica White Ndounou; Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by Kathy A. Perkins; Sound Design by Anna Drummond. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective at Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion through February 2.

 

‘White Christmas’ at Wang a Good Old-Fashioned Holiday Entertainment

by Shelley A. Sackett

 

From before the curtain rises until well after it has fallen, the live orchestra of ‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical,’ infuses the stage and the audience at Boston’s magnificent Boch Center Wang Theatre with wholesome, happy, good vibrations. This is a grandly old-fashioned and thoroughly enjoyable theatrical experience, with tap dancing, fabulous costumes, stunning sets and, most importantly, an incomparable score by the equally incomparable Irving Berlin.

The plot is straight forward. Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, two World War II vets, have become partners in a song-and-dance act after the war. Looking for love, they follow Betty and Judy Haynes, a duo of beautiful singing sisters, to a gig at a Vermont lodge. By coincidence, the lodge happens to be owned by their former army commander, General Waverly, who is facing bankruptcy and loss of his property. The “boys” rally their fellow vets, and together the troops help save the General and his legacy. Along the way, of course, everyone pairs up (including the General, with his manager, Martha Watson) and the three couples seem destined to live happily ever after.

The cast is full of stand out performances, especially Lorna Luft (yes, THAT Lorna Luft, as in Judy Garland’s daughter by producer Sid Luft) as Martha. She looks like a cross between Bette Midler and Madge (the manicurist in the Palmolive dish-washing commercials who soaked her clients’ hands in the detergent) and belts out her songs like Ethel Merman. She steals every scene she is in.

David Elder (Bob) and Jeremy Benton (Phil) are splendid as the two vets as are Kelly Sheehan (Judy) and Kerry Conte (Betty) as the sisters. All four have the acting, singing and dancing chops their roles call for. As General Waverly, Conrad John Schuck brings particular sensitivity and a terrific baritone to the role.

The real stars of the show, however, are the songs, dances and ever-changing sets and costumes. The tap-dancing numbers are spectacularly entertaining, the dancers like gifts, their outfits like wrapping paper. No detail is overlooked; the lining of the men’s jackets even coordinates with their partners’ skirts, and creative lighting adds dimension and excitement.

The blockbuster numbers — “Blue Skies,” “Happy Holiday/Let Yourself Go,” and “White Christmas” — are pure fun to watch, and the simple spotlights, white smoke and dancing stars in “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” create homespun magic. “I Love A Piano,” which opens Act II, is magnificent.

The entire production feels like a magic carpet ride to a carefree, innocent bygone era of Hollywood glamor and diversion. The icing on the cake is the full company curtain call of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” complete with snow, trees, tuxedos and glamorous gowns. A sugar plum of a show, ‘White Christmas’ is guaranteed to delight the young and give their parents a vacation from the news.

‘Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical’ – Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin; Book by David Ives and Paul Blake; Based on the Paramount Pictures film written for the screen by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank; Directed and Choreographed by Randy Skinner; Musical Direction by Michael Horsley; Scenic Design by Anna Louizos; Scenic Adaptation by Kenneth Foy; Costume Design by Carrie Robbins; Lighting Design by Ken Billington; Sound Design by Keith Caggiano; Orchestrations by Larry Blank; Vocal and Dance Arrangements by Bruce Pomahac. Presented by Work Light Productions at the Boch Center Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont St., through Dec. 29.

For tickets and information, go to: https://www.bochcenter.org/buy/show-listing/white-christmas-2019

Trinity Rep’s ‘Fade’ – American Dream or American Betrayal?

Lucia (Elia Saldana) and Abel (Daniel Duque-Estrada) in ‘Fade.’

 

by Shelley A. Sackett

Fade, a two-person play in production on Trinity Rep’s smaller downstairs stage through January 5, is a welcome respite from the same-oldness of the usual holiday theatrical suspects. Although a bit uneven and in need of serious editing (trimming 10-15 minutes from the 100-minute intermission-less production could do wonders for its pacing), Tanya Saracho’s script is a witty and perceptive antidote to sugar plum fairies and ghosts of Christmases past, present and future.

Our two characters – Lucia (Elia Saldana) and Abel (Daniel Duque-Estrada) – both work in a Hollywood television studio. When we meet Lucia, all frenetic energy and stiletto prancing, she is setting up her office, unpacking her personal effects and placing them on a bookshelf. As soon as she places the last item on the shelf, it collapses as if on cue. The first time this happens, it’s mildly amusing, if trite and predictable. The third time, however, raises red flags that the next 99 minutes may be tedious indeed.

Enter Abel, a baseball-hatted office cleaner, to everyone’s rescue. He proceeds to fix the bookcase, in a matter-of-fact and business-like manner. His laid back, laconic style makes Lucia’s staccato mannerisms seem downright manic. Lucia takes one look at him and breaks into rapid-fire Spanish, eventually punctuating her monologue with enough English for a non-Spanish speaking audience member to glean her story. She tells the mute Abel that she is a novelist from Mexico who, after waiting for the idea for her second novel to germinate, realized she needed a steadier income. Although she has no previous experience, she nonetheless landed her first job as a television writer. She worries that she is a diversity hire, questioning her abilities, and also worries about the lack of light in her dingy little office.

When Abel is unable to ignore Lucia any longer and finally speaks, he turns to her and asks a question that goes straight to the heart of the play’s message. “Why are you speaking to me in Spanish?” he inquires. “We have to be militants about speaking our mother tongue. Why don’t you speak Spanish at work?” she counters. “Because I’m American. Because this is America,” he says.

Lucia, who grew up with a maid among Mexico’s wealthy, upper echelons, assumes that Abel, a lowly janitor pushing a vacuum cleaner, must be a Latino who speaks little or no English. She sidles up to him, purring about their common roots while intoning the beginnings of an “us vs them” refrain. When it turns out Abel was born and raised in Southern California, Lucia doesn’t miss a beat. “Do you know what’s the hardest thing about being brown and being from the barrio like I am?” she asks Abel. “It’s knowing I can never be one of them.” Eventually, Lucia manages to break down Abel’s defenses by preying on this sense of their shared “otherness,” and Abel begins to relax. He tells her of his stint as a firefighter as well as his time with the Marines. He talks about his six-old-daughter and her mother. He confides his darkest and deepest secrets, unleashing years of pent-up secrecy and shame. He is grateful for her company, grateful to trust. He is a simple man, but one of true substance.

Daniel Duque-Estrada, as Abel, is economical and precise, revealing his character’s complexity through a simple gesture, a small facial expression or a perfectly placed pause. He is a member of the Trinity Rep Resident Acting Company, and his experience and talent are as obvious as they are welcome.

Lucia, on the other hand, is a fascinating study in self-absorption, cluelessness and blind ambition. Saracho has given her some of the play’s funniest lines, but also some of the most clichéd. Elia Saldana plays her at a single volume (high) and almost as a caricature of a young Latina. Think Charo, Rosie Perez and a yippy chihuahua all rolled into one and you get the idea. It’s a shame that Saldana doesn’t seem to trust her own talent. A little subtlety and nuance could go a long way in fleshing out this woman who is simultaneously humorous, manipulative, charming, mean, erotic and unfair.

Saracho raises some interesting questions and one can only hope she will go back to the drawing room one more time and trim some of the script’s detracting fat. Much of the dialogue sparkles with biting humor and insight. (The scene about Lucia’s boss asking her to talk to his maid and translate his complaint is among the play’s best). Saracho deftly tackles universal ideas about human dignity, class and life itself through the lens of two people who are the “other” both to everyone else in their office and to each other. Most importantly, she leaves the audience to ponder several thought-provoking points. Are people who share cultural backgrounds obligated to stick together? What happens when one chooses to get ahead and join the ranks of “the other,” leaving their minority brethren to fend for themselves? Is this not, after all, the quintessential American dream? Or is it rather, Saracho suggests, the quintessential American betrayal?

‘Fade’- Written by Tanya Saracho. Directed by Tatyana-Marie Carlo; Set Design by Efren Delgadillo, Jr.; Costume Design by Amanda Downing Carney; Co-Lighting Design by Pablo Santiago and Ginevra Lombardo; Sound Design by David R. Molina. Presented by Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington Street, Providence, R.I through January 5.For tickets and information, go to: https://www.trinityrep.com/